I first saw children picking through trash in India. Two boys stood in a parking lot, amidst a thirty-foot by thirty-foot collection of colorful litter thick enough to hide what was underneath it. Eight cows foraged next to them, looking for leftover food. The boys, about eight and ten years old, were collecting recyclables, working together to put the contents of one bag into the other. It was January, and they wore sweaters but didn’t have gloves. One had earmuffs.
Similarly, in our neighborhood in Istanbul, young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan walk miles each day, dumpster to dumpster, looking for recyclables. They pull large carts, taller than they are and the size of a small car, made of canvas that was once white but is now gray and ragged. They make a few dollars each day and live together in shacks just to make ends meet. I heard some walk to Turkey through Iran. And I’ve read where others pay lots of money for their travel, believing they will find a decent job in Istanbul, the city where the glitzy soap operas they watch in their home countries are filmed. When they leave their families, they promise to send money back to them. But when they arrive, they can’t find a job. They’re trapped in a place they probably wished they’d never come to.
I often greet these men when I pass them on the street. And I do my small part to separate clean recyclables in our home, making their job easier and helping ensure our environmental impact is lessened. Most of us haven’t had an experience where we’re living in shacks and picking through dumpsters to salvage used plastic bottles and cardboard. We haven’t had to sell the result of a hard day’s labor for a few dollars, just to get by—and then get up and do it again and again.
When I look at these men, I’m often uncomfortable about the large gap between what I have and what they don’t have—my privileges and their lack of privileges. Living in the in-between of gratitude and humility is, therefore, a burden—one we should gladly accept in exchange for what we have. This burden should discomfort us. If we’re in a place where we’re not without, I think we should feel the burden of our privilege, feeling overwhelmed by what we have. In this way, discomfort is important. It shapes us into being the people we ought to be. It keeps us humble. It keeps us thankful. It keeps us aware of the magnitude of our world’s problems.
Discomfort leads us to a place where we are bothered when we compare what we have to what others don’t have. Discomfort reminds us that the material goods we have are greater than what most others have, and maybe even more than enough for us. This kind of discomfort helps us better live in the in-between of gratitude and humility, being thankful for what we have while also understanding we have it because of things that are out of our control. Does it really even all belong to us?
Feeling this burden of discomfort can also transform the way we think about what we have, even if it’s just enough to scrape by each month. We become more grateful for what we have. We are more aware of those who are struggling. Living in the in-between of gratitude and humility helps us remember our privileges. It helps us fight the beast of resistance within us—self-centeredness, lack of generosity, and apathy—that causes us to forget those in need. We realize that since we have, we should therefore give.
This excerpt is from John Christopher Frame’s recent book, 7 Attitudes of the Helping Heart: How to Live Out Your Faith and Care for the Poor.